5 years ago

How an Alabamian risked everything to expose a gaping hole in national security; and won

Blake Percival (right) exposed USIS "dumping" practices
Blake Percival (right) exposed USIS “dumping” practices. USIS performed background checks on Edward Snowden (left) and Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis (center)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — What if many of the over 5 million Americans who have some level of security clearance were not fully vetted before gaining access to the U.S. government’s best kept secrets?

In 2011, that is exactly what Blake Percival realized was going on.

Percival was settling into a new job making the most money he ever had ($110,000/year, plus bonuses and stock options) at a company called USIS. The company was a contractor for the U.S. government tasked with doing in-depth background checks on individuals applying for security clearances. Percival said this made him and his colleagues the “front line of defense” in making sure only the most trustworthy applicants were approved.

But something was wrong, according to a detailed account published by the Washington Post.

While getting to know the people in his new office, Percival asked what they liked least about their jobs. “I hate that we dump,” one of them said.

It was the first time Percival had heard the term, and he asked what it meant. The response shocked him.

“One of USIS’s dirty little secrets is that we’re not reviewing every case we send to OPM,” said Percival’s co-worker. OPM refers to the Office of Personnel Management, which processes most of the country’s security clearance applications.

In short, “dumping” was the term the USIS staff used for cutting corners. Instead of doing the detailed field work required to vet individuals seeking security clearances, USIS was simply giving their stamp of approval to as many applicants as they possibly could. Among those applicants were Edward Snowden, who went on to leak highly classified information on the government’s spying programs, and Aaron Alexis, who is now know as the Washington Navy Yard shooter.

After digging into his co-workers’ allegations, Percival found that USIS was pretending to do its job in order to meet revenue targets. The more applicants they vetted and approved, the more they were paid. OPM at one point appears to have suspected USIS of cutting corners, because one of the agency’s staffers sent a letter to the company in 2011 asking how just four investigators could complete 13,000 reports in a single week.

Percival told his subordinates that from that point forward, they would do the job right.

“As of this moment, we do not dump,” he declared. “If anyone tells you to dump, you send them to me.”

That decision ended up getting Percival fired. After his division missed its revenue targets for several months in a row, he was terminated and told it was because of his “management style.”

The company tried to get him to sign a severance agreement that would have paid him over $40,000, but it would have required him to waive his right to file a False Claims Act lawsuit. He balked.

Percival set up a meeting with powerhouse Alabama law firm Beasley Allen and told them what he had uncovered during his time at USIS. A lawsuit was filed almost immediately detailing his allegations and sending shockwaves through the U.S. national security community.

The United States Department of Justice later joined the suit, alleging that a jaw-dropping 665,500 security clearance cases had been “dumped” by USIS over a four year period. Documents obtained by the DoJ “confirmed that USIS senior management was aware of and directed the dumping practices. This practice was followed in order to meet USIS’s internal goals for completed cases and, therefore, to increase the company’s revenue and profits.”

Unfortunately for Percival, as the lawsuit made its way through the legal system, there was not much that could be done about his career being derailed.

He was trying to provide for his wife and three children by stocking shelves at a local grocery store where the manager was kind enough to allow him to take home expired meat for dinner. There were times when he regretted being a whistleblower. As of early last week, Percival had exactly $54.41 in his bank account, according to The Post.

But today, everything is different.

The lawsuit resulted in a $30 million settlement between USIS and the U.S. government. And over four years since his ordeal began, Percival finally received his share of the settlement, which amounts to over $3 million.

“How does it feel to be a millionaire?” He called and asked his wife.

They plan to throw out the expired meat left in their freezer.

(h/t The Washington Post)

2 hours ago

Auburn trustee, Alabama native reportedly being considered as Biden’s Defense secretary

According to a report, U.S. Army General Lloyd J. Austin (Ret.) is under consideration to lead the Department of Defense under a Biden administration.

Axios on Friday reported that former Vice President Joe Biden has placed Austin on a shortlist to be the next DoD secretary.

This comes after the Trump administration began the formal transition process through the General Services Administration.

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President Donald J. Trump tweeted earlier this week that he still believes he will be found to have won the 2020 general election following ongoing legal challenges.

“I believe we will prevail!” he said. “Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that [the GSA head] and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”

Regardless, Biden is proceeding on the assumption that he is the president-elect, and on Tuesday he unveiled much of his national security team:

Secretary of State: Tony Blinken
National Security adviser: Jake Sullivan
Director of National Intelligence: Avril Haines
Department of Homeland Security Secretary: Alejandro Mayorkas
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Special presidential envoy on climate: John Kerry

Notably absent from this list was a secretary of Defense nominee.

Axios on Friday explained that “[Michele] Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden’s comfort level — have come into play.”

This follows U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a top Biden ally who was viewed as key in Biden winning the Democratic nomination for president this year, and other prominent Black Democrats already publicly lobbying for Biden to do better when it comes to diversity among cabinet selections.

Austin would be the first Black DoD secretary in American history.

He currently serves on the Auburn University board of trustees and was born in Mobile, Alabama.

After a nearly 41-year decorated military career, Austin retired in 2016 as a four-star general. Some of his former posts include service as the commander of U.S. Central Command, commander of the Combined Forces in Iraq and Syria, and as the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army.

Austin is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds master’s degrees from Auburn and Webster University. He has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Auburn, and his wife, Charlene, is also an Auburn graduate.

Additionally, the retired general currently serves on the board of directors for Raytheon Technologies and Nucor, both of which have large Alabama presences.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

‘Rivals’ Tuscaloosa and Auburn are shaping Alabama’s future

Tuscaloosa and Auburn have a lot in common.

That assessment might give pause to passionate fans on both sides of what has been called college football’s greatest traditional rivalry. But if the subject is small-but-thriving communities that continue to expand their established industrial base while nurturing new businesses in emerging innovation sectors, the two cities – along with Tuscaloosa and Lee counties – offer a similar range of compelling advantages.

Start with the fact that both are home to major universities – the University of Alabama and Auburn University – with all of the attendant impacts on everything from K-12 education to arts and culture to economic development. Add low costs of living and doing business, numerous locational benefits and ample opportunities for outdoor recreation year-round, and the term “quality of life” becomes apparent in all its facets.

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“If you dig deep into quality of life, you’re looking at actual facts,” said Arndt Siepmann, deputy director of economic development for the city of Auburn. “You’re looking at schools, housing, public safety and the ways those things contribute not just to profitability, but to the ability to attract and retain great people. A healthy community and a healthy business climate go hand in hand.”

The same is true in Tuscaloosa, where Danielle Winningham is executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority (TCIDA). What Winningham describes as “a small-town feel with the amenities of a bigger city” is reflected in housing options, the availability of parks and the variety of retail options, in addition to a growing population and a dependable, qualified and skilled available workforce.

“It’s that combination of factors that makes this area so vibrant,” Winningham said.

Both communities are situated in the heart of the Southeast, offering convenient access to larger markets. Located near Alabama’s western border, Tuscaloosa is served by Interstate Highway 20/59, one of the nation’s busiest commercial corridors. It is 50 miles from Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city and home to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Across the state, near its eastern border, Auburn is connected by Interstate Highway 85 to Atlanta and its international airport, just over 100 miles away.

Meeting the coming demand

Looking to the future, Tuscaloosa and Auburn have strategically developed assets and partnerships that position them for long-term growth in areas related to technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. The universities are playing increasingly active roles in nurturing, supporting and accelerating a variety of sectors with high-growth potential – including software development, defense and cybersecurity, IT, and medical and other advanced manufacturing – as well as finding new ways to build on long-standing strengths in the automotive sector.

What’s more, both communities are recognized as developing labor markets for computer programmers. Currently, Auburn ranks No. 1 and Tuscaloosa No. 3 among all U.S. metro areas for computer programming cost factors, with that field projected to add well over 500,000 new jobs to the state economy by 2026. Alabama and Auburn have strong computer science programs at undergraduate and graduate levels and are highly attuned to meeting the coming demand.

“We’re putting a real emphasis on diversifying around knowledge-based industries,” said Winningham. “We recognize that both our existing industry base and those sectors that are just beginning to emerge have an important part to play in ensuring that our community continues to prosper in the future.”

One of the results of that strategy, Winningham points out, is The Edge, a 26,300-square-foot incubator and accelerator that provides office space, workstations, conference rooms and wet labs to knowledge-based startups and early-stage ventures. A partnership of the University of Alabama, the city of Tuscaloosa and the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, The Edge continues to see steady growth in the number of businesses and individuals it serves, from 28 businesses and 50 people in June 2019 to 39 businesses and 90 people a year later.

In addition, the University of Alabama’s technology incubator, Edge Labs, incubated five university spinoff companies in 2019: 525 Solutions, an R&D company developing liquid technologies for the medical, pharmaceutical and materials fields; ThruPore Technologies, which produces innovative specialty materials for industrial uses; JAQ Energy, a developer of new technologies for power electronic and energy systems; and ForeSense Technologies, which is commercializing technology – developed by University of Alabama researchers, working with U.S. Army scientists – that uses electrical signals to quickly detect hazardous airborne chemicals.

“These companies are great examples of our vision for the future,” said Winningham. “It’s about connecting creators, builders and visionaries with the resources they need to be successful.”

In Auburn, a twofold strategy is accelerating the build-out of what already is a robust innovation infrastructure. The 170-acre Auburn Research Park, a partnership of the city of Auburn and Auburn University managed by the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, supports development of knowledge-based jobs in a setting adjacent to the university campus, with its fifth new facility – the 100,000-square-foot Research and Innovation Center – having opened this fall. The city and the university are working with local manufacturing companies to optimize collaboration around innovation.

“Manufacturing innovation is happening here,” Siepmann said. “We’re finding the answers to questions like, ‘Where are the best employees?’ and ‘What is the best training?’ Increased automation means increased demand for engineers and technicians from technology-based value-added manufacturing companies. Supporting that also helps drive innovation in other areas.”

Siepmann reels off three companies that exemplify Auburn’s growing success in leveraging and expanding its innovation infrastructure:

  • GE Aviation recently completed a $50 million expansion of its aerospace additive manufacturing operation to incorporate 3D printing technologies; the project created 60 new jobs.
  • RAPA, the U.S headquarters for German-based Rausch & Pausch. The company produces high-precision automotive parts, using Auburn-based R&D.
  • Sio2, a homegrown company that has for many years manufactured glass vials for medical and scientific uses. In July, the company announced a $163 million expansion after receiving a contract to supply the federal government with glass-lined plastic vials to support efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19; the project will create 220 jobs.

Siepmann also mentioned Auburn’s additive manufacturing accelerator, funded through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Currently, the program is working with 10 existing companies and three startups.

“We are providing steppingstones for companies and founders to learn about the viability of technology in their operations,” said Siepmann. “Auburn is a great example of how economic developers can leverage the assets of a university and state government to accelerate innovation and business development.”

All of which adds up to one more thing that Auburn and Tuscaloosa have in common: A bright future.

(For more information about innovation and opportunities in Alabama, contact Amendi Stephens)

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Alabama holiday sales predicted to meet or slightly exceed 2019’s $13.25 billion

Alabamians, like the rest of the nation, have already begun their holiday shopping to ensure they can get the gifts they want and that those gifts arrive on time.

Through September, Alabama consumers had spent almost 8% more than they did in 2019, based on Alabama Revenue Department reports on all state-taxed sales. That growth came despite the business disruptions caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Retail analysts and economists agree that this year’s holiday sales will be unchanged over the 2019 holidays or grow modestly. Unchanged would be good, because spending in Alabama in 2019 during the traditional holiday shopping months of November and December reached an all-time high of $13.25 billion.

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For the past decade, and especially the past few years, shoppers moved away from the traditional Black Friday (day after Thanksgiving) holiday shopping kickoff to Black November as their cue to begin shopping. The coronavirus has given shoppers reason to start their purchasing even earlier.

Alabama’s retailers are well-stocked and ready to serve their customers however they want to shop safely – in store, online, through apps or social media, delivery or pickup/curbside.

The Alabama Retail Association encourages shoppers to keep Alabama businesses open by planning to safely shop Alabama for the holidays throughout the holiday shopping season.

(Courtesy of the Alabama Retail Association)

5 hours ago

U.S. Rep.-Elect Carl urges State Sen. Elliott not to allow ‘personal feelings’ about Gov. Ivey interfere with I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge proposal

Earlier this week, State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Daphne) announced he had no interest in having discussions about a new I-10 Mobile Bay bridge until Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Transportation director John Cooper were out of office given the way the 2019 toll bridge saga unfolded, which was canceled after the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) removed the project from its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

According to Elliott, that was the last line of defense against what appeared to be an unpopular effort by the Ivey administration to construct a bridge that would have incorporated a toll through a public-private partnership.

Friday, during an appearance on Mobile radio’s FM Talk 106.5, U.S. Rep.-elect Jerry Carl (R-Mobile) weighed in on the Eastern Shore MPO’s effort to revive the project and cautioned Elliott on taking such a stand on working with the Ivey administration.

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“Every time I cross the bridge, and I get stuck in traffic, I think about those of us that made a decision to push against the tolls, which I think was the right decision at that time,” he said. “But we’ve got to do something. We’re talking about not just the commercial side of that bridge but also us civilians going to and from work, shopping, beach — so on, and so forth. So, we’ve got to do something on the bridge. Now tolling is obviously off the table. But we’re going to do something.”

Carl urged Elliott not to rule out working with Ivey over “personal opinions” and said the focus should be on getting a solution on the bridge project.

“You know, I heard what my friend Chris Elliott said,” Carl continued. “Chris is a dear friend of mine, and he and I agree and disagree on a lot of things. But, you know, we can’t allow our opinions — and politics is like business. When you start allowing your personal opinions to spill over into your job, that’s when you start making some poor choices. And working with the governor or working with her staff — we don’t have an option.”

“Now I heard the argument you don’t trust them — well, that’s what the MPOs are for. They’re the check and balance system. It worked for us last time. So, why would it not work this time? I mean, it is a check and balance system. All the elected officials that sit on those MPOs — they did the job of shutting it down. Ultimately, they are the ones that shut it down on the Eastern Shore.”

“If the Eastern Shore wants to put it back together and bring it back up and talk to the governor about it — I say hoorah,” he added. “Let’s move on. Let’s see what we can actually do. Let’s see what the options are because doing nothing and waiting four years, waiting six years, or waiting whatever length of time until we have this administration replaced — I totally disagree with. Again, we work with a lot of people that we don’t care a lot for. I’m sure there are a lot of people that work with us that don’t care for us, too. But that’s just the daily way of doing business. And the governor — it has been a tough road, and we’ll all agree with that on this bridge project. But there have been so many parts that have truly been the big problem. Everyone that crosses that bridge that gets stuck is going to be thinking of our names. I’ll assure you that.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

6 hours ago

Mayors partner with Live HealthSmart Alabama to bring COVID-19 testing to their communities

Mayors across Jefferson County are leading an effort to bring COVID-19 testing to their communities by partnering with Live HealthSmart Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC).

Increasing options for testing is critical to reach all population groups, especially those in minority communities. Since August, Live HealthSmart Alabama has expanded its COVID-19 testing to such minority communities throughout Jefferson County, including Morris, Midfield, Kimberly, Bessemer, Trussville and many more – a task made possible by the mayors’ invitations into those communities.

Community testing is an essential part of the strategy to contain, and ultimately end, the pandemic.

“The MHRC has been a leader in community testing for COVID-19 in Birmingham and Jefferson County since we launched mobile testing locations early in the pandemic,” said Dr. Mona Fouad, director of the MHRC. “We are pleased to expand our partnership with these mayors to deliver testing across Jefferson County and help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

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Residents in rural and minority communities need to have the opportunity for testing. While other testing facilities are focused on population density, Live HealthSmart Alabama actively seeks out smaller neighborhoods that are often overlooked. And, in areas such as Hueytown, it is the perfect fit.

“UAB is making testing possible and convenient for our citizens,” said Brannan Clark, Hueytown’s fire marshal and safety officer. “The timing couldn’t be better; just before Thanksgiving when many families will gather for the first time in months. This testing is convenient and safe, especially for our seniors who haven’t left their homes much.”

Also working to bring Live HealthSmart Alabama testing to their communities are Joe Pylant, mayor of Morris; Kimberly Mayor Bob Ellerbrock; and Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland. Testing was available in Hueytown, thanks to the efforts of Mayor Steve Ware, and in Trussville through the support of Mayor Buddy Choat.

Funding is provided by the Jefferson County Commission through federal coronavirus funding, with the goal of increasing community-based testing in the county, particularly in areas serving vulnerable populations.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.